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05.05.12 The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865, by E. Milby Burton, published by the University of South Carolina Press, 1970.

About the Author:

Edward Milby Burton (1898-1977) was a noted museum director, naturalist and historian of Charleston, S.C.


This book, which Burton dedicated to his father-in-law Captain Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, “One of the Heroic Defenders of Charleston,” chronicles the four year- long attempt by the Federal forces to capture Charleston, South Carolina, the city despised by its enemies as the “cradle of secession” and the “hotbed of the rebellion.” The siege began when the first Federal warships arrived in the area to blockade Charleston harbor. The blockade was enacted very early in the war, and for the next few years, the Federals tried repeated assaults by land and sea in an effort to destroy the harbor defenses, and to invade Charleston from its neighboring sea islands.  In the summer of 1862, the Confederate defenders thwarted an enemy landing on James Island at the Battle of Secessionville, and in 1863, Federal forces under the command of General Quincy A. Gillmore made unsuccessful assaults on the Confederate fortifications on Morris Island, primarily Battery Wagner, where the U.S. Colored Troops of the 54th Massachusetts famously participated and suffered heavy losses. 

Attack after attack was made against the formidable Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston harbor, and finally, following a terrific assault by Federal ironclad vessels and land installations, its guns were finally silenced, although the Confederates continued to hold the fort and harass the enemy with sharpshooters.   

Before Fort Sumter was neutralized, General Gillmore made good on a threat to bombard the city unless General Beauregard , the Confederate commander, surrendered Fort Sumter and Morris Island, and beginning in the middle of the night in late August 1863, his guns sent artillery shells into Charleston, indiscriminately firing into all parts of the city. Beauregard was outraged and accused Gillmore of barbarity.

Captain Charles C. Pinckney, a Confederate ordnance officer on General Roswell S. Ripley’s staff, was suddenly roused from his bed with orders to report  to headquarters, and recalled the unexpected nighttime shelling of Charleston thus:

I rode down Smith Street about 2 o’clock A.M. The streets were entirely deserted, yet every house was lighted up. What does it mean? Have the Yankees slipped in and taken the town while I was asleep? I urged the horse, & reached Headquarters. [I asked] “What is it?” “They are shelling the city.” “Shelling the city! From where?” “Nobody knows.” Shelling the city! Without notice, a city full of sleeping women & children—a bombardment without military significance, and simply an ebullition of spleen at the repeated failure of their attacks…Later on…they shelled the city spasmodically for an indefinite time. We used to sit on the battery at night and see the burning fuses coming across the harbor. I remember that one old negro woman selling groundnuts in the market, was knocked to pieces…The bombardment was absolutely without effect on the progress of the siege, and was clearly & purely spite!  

Soon afterward, in September 1863, Beauregard decided to abandon Morris Island, and the Federals promptly took possession of the entire island and its forts. The bombardment continued until the last month of the war in 1865, making it the longest siege in modern military history up to that time. General Gilmore was succeeded by General John G. Foster, the Federal commander responsible for putting hundreds of Confederate prisoners of war in harm’s way inside a stockade prison on Morris Island.

The Confederates came up with ingenious methods of defense and offense, including floating batteries, the semi-submersible “torpedo boat” known as the David, and the celebrated submarine CSS H. L. Hunley, but despite four long years of a resolute defense of the city, the longsuffering Confederates were forced to evacuate Charleston in mid-February 1865 as General Sherman’s massive army moved through South Carolina. In the aftermath of the evacuation, Federal forces occupied the city, pillaging and confiscating property, and also looting and needlessly destroying plantations in the outlying areas, including such magnificent estates as Middleton Place and Magnolia. Burton’s book covers all these aspects of the siege of Charleston in a well-written, dramatic and engaging narrative

The original hard cover edition of the book is out of print, but a paperback edition is still easily available through bookstores and online vendors. Also recommended is a book that focuses more specifically on the shelling of Charleston, covering the years 1863 to 1865, The Bombardment of Charleston, by W. Chris Phelps.